A Time to Think Big

The country faces grave challenges. So why do Jeb Bush and Barack Obama spend so much time on small-bore maneuvers?

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Jeb Bush isn't not running for President. This is big news, even though the next presidential election is several zillion tweets away. It shakes up the political money world, where potential saviors like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio may find it much harder to fill their treasuries. It may tee up yet another of those Bush-vs.-Clinton death matches that are so entertaining. But it is potentially more important for those who'd like to see the Republican Party evolve past its current juvenility. Bush is thoughtful, and he thinks big. Asked on Morning Joe to name the issues the Republican Party needs to address, he replied, "We're no longer socially mobile ... It is so un-American." I'm not sure what Bush's solutions would be, but he did identify the single most vexing structural problem that we face going forward: the stagnation and decline of the great American middle class, the creation of a permanent American underclass and oligarchy. It is something we desperately need to be talking about; it may be as crucial to the future of the Republic as the slavery debate was in the 19th century.

Of course, Bush's ability to indulge in such big thinkery was immediately overwhelmed by a cheesy tactical blunder: he has co-authored a new book on immigration reform in which he proposes a path to legal residency for those who are here illegally. This represents a step backward from his traditional support for a path toward full-fledged citizenship--just as the more enlightened members of his party are taking a step forward toward that position. "We wrote this book last year, not this year," he explained. Last year, the Republicans running for President were engaged in a pagan nativist purification ritual. Last year, his position might have been a teeny step forward for the party--but the book was scheduled to be published this year, making it seem as if Bush decided in 2012 to trim his sails for 2013, which smacked of rank politics on an important matter of principle.

The Jeb spectacle was yet another reminder that in American politics these days, small thoughts crush big ones. Tactics rule. We in the media focus on twigs rather than forests, and politicians give us plenty of twigs to snap. Even the legends among us, like Bob Woodward, are caught playing petty. Woodward wrongly accused Gene Sperling, the President's economic adviser, of threatening him over Woodward's assumption (also wrong) that the President had been "moving the goalpost" by asking for new revenue in the budget squabble. Woodward seemed frazzled by the mind-curdling intensity of tweets and television. And so was the economist Paul Krugman, who found his mouth saying that he favored even wasteful defense spending to boost the economy in a debate on Charlie Rose with the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. (I mean, wouldn't it be preferable to cut the payroll tax rather than build the F-35 fighter?)

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